Consequences, Action, and Intention as Factors in Moral Judgments: An FMRI Investigation

Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755, USA.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 4.09). 06/2006; 18(5):803-17. DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.5.803
Source: PubMed


The traditional philosophical doctrines of Consequentialism, Doing and Allowing, and Double Effect prescribe that moral judgments and decisions should be based on consequences, action (as opposed to inaction), and intention. This study uses functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how these three factors affect brain processes associated with moral judgments. We find the following: (1) Moral scenarios involving only a choice between consequences with different amounts of harm elicit activity in similar areas of the brain as analogous non-moral scenarios; (2) Compared to analogous non-moral scenarios, moral scenarios in which action and inaction result in the same amount of harm elicit more activity in areas associated with cognition (such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) and less activity in areas associated with emotion (such as the orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole); (3) Compared to analogous non-moral scenarios, conflicts between goals of minimizing harm and of refraining from harmful action elicit more activity in areas associated with emotion (orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole) and less activity in areas associated with cognition (including the angular gyrus and superior frontal gyrus); (4) Compared to moral scenarios involving only unintentional harm, moral scenarios involving intentional harm elicit more activity in areas associated with emotion (orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole) and less activity in areas associated with cognition (including the angular gyrus and superior frontal gyrus). These findings suggest that different kinds of moral judgment are preferentially supported by distinguishable brain systems.

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Available from: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Dec 31, 2013
    • "Interestingly, the mPFC/PCC/TPJ network seems to be concerned with the representation of the mental states of others as well as with the ''default mode'' of brain activity, which might be involved in self-relatedness processing (D'Argembeau et al., 2005; Schneider et al., 2008). On the other hand, Trolley-type dilemmas were found to elicit greater activation in brain areas involved in working memory and cognitive control (i.e., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal lobule) as compared to Footbridge-type dilemmas (Borg et al., 2006; Greene, Nystrom, Engell, Darley, & Cohen, 2004; Greene et al., 2001). Moreover, neuropsychological studies on brain-damaged populations consistently showed an atypically high number of utilitarian responses to Footbridge-type dilemmas in patients with focal lesions to the ventromedial prefrontal areas (Ciaramelli, Muccioli, Ladavas, & di Pellegrino, 2007; Koenigs et al., 2007) and in patients with deterioration of prefrontal and anterior temporal areas (Mendez, Anderson, & Shapira, 2005), suggesting a causal role played by brain areas related to emotional processing in rejecting utilitarian resolutions. "
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    • "However, there is also evidence that Footbridge-style dilemmas elicit greater activity in brain regions involved with emotional processing than Side-track-style dilemmas (Greene et al., 2004; Schaich Borg et al., 2006). Greene (in press) has argued that our automatic emotional response to Footbridge affects our moral judgments. "
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